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Andrew Mitchell MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, recently became the first senior British politician to visit Zimbabwe in an official capacity in many years.  Here, he writes about the progress he witnessed that has been made in recent months – and the challenges that remain.

This time last year the shops in Zimbabwe were empty, a cholera crisis that went on to claim over 4,000 lives was sweeping the country, most schools were shut and hyper-inflation of over 200 million per cent was raging.  Today, markets across the country are coming back to life, most schools have re-opened and the faltering economy is being resuscitated.

Individual Zimbabweans are beginning to get on with the business of making a living again.  At a township outside Harare I met Sammy, a young entrepreneur whose market stall was crushed by Zanu PF bulldozers before the election during a clearance operation aimed at scattering the MDC’s urban voters.  Sammy now has a permanent hardware stall in the newly rebuilt Chitungwiza market, and he and a group of neighbouring stallholders are helping each other get by with a group savings and loans scheme.  Around the corner, a father showed me around his carefully grown garden in which he had coaxed rows of lush green vegetables from the red earth so that he could feed himself and his family.

The tectonic plates of Zimbabwe are shifting.  There has been considerable progress given the extraordinary circumstances, and it is almost exclusively down to the determination of Morgan Tsvangirai and his colleagues in the MDC.  The events of last spring, when Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF cronies stole the Presidential election, eventually gave way to a power-sharing agreement which so far appears to be holding.  Zanu PF hoped that by giving the MDC the most difficult portfolios – the ones that would most affect the lives of ordinary people – the MDC’s failure would rebound to their discredit and Zanu PF’s advantage.  The opposite has been the case.

Take Tendai Biti, the Finance Minister.  He has raised revenues from customs and business taxes from a paltry $4m in January to $98m in July.  By replacing the Zimbabwean currency with the US dollar he has halted the country’s trademark runaway inflation – it has now stabilised at a respectable 3%.  And when the IMF recently granted Zimbabwe $500m, the disgraced Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono thought all his Christmases had come at once – but Biti outmanoeuvred him and the money will now be used to help rebuild the country rather than being embezzled for the advantage of Mugabe and his tightly-knit circle of henchmen.  Despite continued pressures, the man who not so long ago received a live bullet in the post is beginning to transform the Zimbabwean economy.

There is good news in health and education, too.  Children are back at school, and thousands of doctors and nurses who weren’t at work when last year’s cholera crisis struck are back at their health centres.  Both of these Ministries are headed by MDC Ministers.

This is encouraging progress, and it must continue.  But elsewhere the picture is less promising.  Many of the fundamental provisions of the power-sharing agreement are yet to be implemented and Zanu PF shows little sign of delivering on most of its commitments.  Some major sticking points stand out.  The constitutional review process is meant to see a new constitution consulted on, drafted, and then made the subject of a referendum.  A land audit that establishes exactly who is in possession of what, as a first step towards a conclusive settlement on this most sensitive of issues, is crucial yet shows no sign of getting off the ground.  Nor has Mugabe released all political prisoners, or honoured his commitments to open up the media space.  And all the while Zanu PF thugs and militia lurk in the background.

So, what next?  Well, Britain and the international community are ready to step in with financial and technical support, but this will need to be subject to real progress and reform.  We must keep up the pressure for the implementation of the Global Political Agreement and undoubtedly maintain the international sanctions which are targeted at senior Zanu PF officials and their backers.  Mugabe complains vigorously about the sanctions – a testimony to their value.

Almost everyone I spoke to on my visit (and I refused to meet anyone from Zanu PF) had a different perception of when the next election could and should take place, but it is clear that the goal must be a free and fair election in which individual Zimbabweans can have their say about their future without fear of the blatant intimidation and repression that blighted the last round of elections.

It is to be hoped that South Africa’s new President, Jacob Zuma, will be a key figure in helping to mediate the political process.  Like a batsman digging in at the crease, he appears to be preparing to make Zanu PF face up to their commitments under the power-sharing agreement – replacing the ‘quiet diplomacy’ of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.  Zuma’s presence could change the geometry of SADC meetings if coupled with real political will.

We should do everything possible to maintain the pressure for genuine political progress, and stand ready to help transform Zimbabwe when the time is right.  Zimbabwe is not a naturally poor country.  It has fertile land for agriculture, the basic infrastructure for a functioning state, and a population that is literate, skilled and entrepreneurial.  Britain should be ready to lead a significant development and rehabilitation effort in conjunction with other Commonwealth countries and international donors to give Zimbabwe the chance of a fresh start.

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